A new report released Thursday by the nonprofit trade organization The Cinema Foundation laid out a case for an optimistic outlook on the future of movie theaters, even as it also surveyed the damage done to the industry by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report, which can be viewed here, shows that the number of movie screens in the U.S. and Canada declined by 5% between 2019 and 2022 from 44,283 to 42,063 screens. The Cinema Foundation says it is unclear how many of those screens can directly attribute their closure to financial strain brought by the pandemic or how many may be brought back by theater chains acquiring and reopening closed multiplexes.
On the brighter side, the report shows that the average domestic box office total of films released in 2022 climbed to $91.7 million, slightly above the $90.2 million average recorded in 2019. The difference between the $11.3 billion domestic total of 2019 and the $7.5 billion total of 2022 has been the number of wide release films on more than 2,000 screens, with the report tallying 71 such films in 2022 compared to 112 in 2019.
“Data and research are the essential tools we use to drive forward cinema innovations,” said Jackie Brenneman, president of the Cinema Foundation in a statement. “What we found from our multiple research partners is that the future of the moviegoing experience looks bright and that a number of new opportunities exist for both exhibitors and studios.”
In 2023, the Cinema Foundation currently estimates that the wide release film count will increase by 50% to 107. Every studio is expected to increase its number of wide releases from last year with the exception of Paramount, which is staying level with 2022 at eight films. Warner Bros. is set to double its wide release count from six films in 2022 to 12 in 2023, while Lionsgate will increase from three to 12 and Sony Pictures from 11 to 19.
The report also found via a customer survey that half of moviegoers polled said they were more likely to watch a film on streaming if it had a theatrical release. When breaking down the top 5 most watched movies last year on six major streaming services, 22 of the 30 movies listed had a theatrical release, including Disney’s “Encanto” and Universal/Illumination’s “Sing 2.”
“Streaming is an important part of a film’s distribution plan, but it does not replace theaters which remain primary in the film ecosystem. We learned there cannot be billion-dollar movies without movie theaters. Without billion-dollar movies there cannot be $200 million budgets. Films just are not as majestic or compelling if they have not opened in a movie theater,” the report concluded.
The Cinema Foundation acknowledged that there are still major concerns with the current industry such as the significant underperformance of acclaimed, Oscar-contending dramas like Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” and Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” compared to their pre-pandemic counterparts, but insisted that “those problems will be addressed with theaters as a key part of the solution.”
“Streamers will continue to piggyback off the aura and magic of a major theater release. The windows will be shorter (the one victory studios gained), but the all-important theatrical release will now sit at the apex of movie marketing for generations to come,” the report also said.